The Man Who Chased History
The Ukrainian journalist Sergii Leshchenko has a nose for a story and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. I wanted to see the war through his eyes.
In February, when the bombs began falling on Kyiv, I immediately thought of Sergii Leshchenko. He isn’t a friend or colleague exactly, but I feel indebted to him. Over the years, at a series of Kyiv cafés, he has patiently explained the dark corners of Ukrainian politics to me, sharing insights gleaned from his long career as an investigative reporter. In those earliest hours of the war, as I watched CNN correspondents crouching in the parking garages of their hotels, I worried about what might befall him. I sent him a text extending my “solidarity and prayers,” a gesture that, even as I made it, felt inadequate to the moment.
I had first met Leshchenko in May 2014, in the back room of a sleek Kyiv restaurant serving food from the republic of Georgia. A group of journalists, both local and foreign, had assembled, and the mood was ebullient. Three months earlier, a revolution had chased President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian-backed kleptocrat, from power.
Leshchenko seemed young then: wiry, bespectacled, clad in a button-down shirt, a quiet presence. He had been something of a prodigy; the son of engineers, he had obtained his first press pass when he was 17. In the early years of independence from the Soviet Union, he roamed the corridors of Parliament, gawking at the new titans of the nation’s politics.
He didn’t set out to be an investigative journalist. The vocation was thrust upon him. In 2000, two weeks after he began working for a newspaper, his editor went missing. Two months later, the editor’s corpse was discovered in the forest, decapitated, drenched with chemicals, and charred. Investigating the murder, which was never officially solved but strongly implicated a former president, provided Leshchenko with an advanced education in the hideous tactics of the powerful.
Revealing the corruption of the elite was dangerous but also exhilarating. Perhaps Leshchenko’s greatest subject was Yanukovych’s extravagant lifestyle, especially his ornate palace, built on 340 illegally obtained acres. Among the amenities were a museum for the president’s car collection and a pirate ship anchored in a river that passed through the property. Leshchenko’s stories helped stoke the anger that brought protesters into the streets.
On the night I met him, however, Leshchenko was contemplating a new career. His small circle of reformers shared a growing belief that the moment demanded more than just railing against the rot. Ukraine’s democracy needed builders. With the encouragement of the political theorist Francis Fukuyama, Leshchenko ran for Parliament and won. At age 34, he occupied one of the seats of power that had so dazzled his teenage self.
It never occurred to me that I would see Leshchenko again. Then, in 2016, he made a brief but consequential cameo in American politics. Soon after Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, Leshchenko held a press conference in Kyiv. Waving a sheaf of documents, he revealed the existence of a “black ledger,” which contained notations of furtive payments disbursed by Yanukovych’s party. A few months later, The New York Times reported the presence of Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, in the pages of the ledger. He had apparently received millions in illicit payments from powerful backers of the party. Manafort immediately resigned from the campaign.
I emailed Leshchenko asking if we could meet. On my subsequent reporting trips to Kyiv, I came to appreciate how his capacity for outrage coexisted with a sly sense of humor. He once showed me selfies he’d taken in front of properties that Manafort owned in New York.
It took a sense of humor to appreciate the strange fate of his political career. In 2019, he had grown close to Volodymyr Zelensky, then a comic actor running for president. But the bylaws of Zelensky’s newly formed party forbade Leshchenko from running as a candidate on its slate. Only outsiders, who’d never held political office, were allowed to represent the party, which promised sweeping change. The outsiders won in a wave election, taking down their ally Leshchenko in the process.
Leshchenko filled the void with a medley of projects. He hosted a television talk show and consulted at the Kyiv Post. Emulating the nation’s new president, he even dabbled in show business.
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Brian Keith Etheridge, a writer from Hollywood, had spent months living in Ukraine so that he could be closer to the source material for what he hoped would be his masterwork. Little in Etheridge’s past suggested the depth and sweep of the project. His previous credits included sitcoms such as The Goldbergs and Mike & Molly.
This series would be darker, more award-worthy—a docudrama about Ukraine’s tumultuous post-Communist years. He told me he had the project distilled to a formula that might catch the attention of a Netflix executive: “It’s Narcos meets House of Cards, but set in Kyiv.” The working title was Sovereign State.
Etheridge turned to Leshchenko for help. He was learning the history as he wrote; Leshchenko had lived the plot points.
Etheridge asked him to apply the precision of investigative journalism to the script. In one draft, a powerful oligarch tells the Ukrainian president, “Suck my dick.” Leshchenko protested that he wouldn’t use that particular turn of phrase, because its recipient would interpret it as a slur and therefore grounds for violent reprisal.
On February 23, Leshchenko and Etheridge were story-boarding episodes. “It was our best day of work,” Etheridge told me. But at 3 p.m., they were interrupted.
A member of Parliament Etheridge had befriended arrived in the writers’ room. He looked pale. He had just met with Zelensky. The president told him that the Russians were going to begin bombing Kyiv the next morning. The subject of their show—the history of Ukraine—was about to take another momentous turn.
Etheridge made hasty plans to drive to Lviv, in western Ukraine, a safe distance from the amassed Russian troops, and implored his partner to join him. Like me, he worried about Leshchenko’s safety in what promised to be a short, lopsided war. But Leshchenko sensed an opportunity to participate in the next chapter of Ukraine’s history. “I’ve got to be here,” he told Etheridge.
In “Radio Atlantic,” Jeffrey Goldberg and Anne Applebaum report on their journey to Kyiv to meet with Ukraine’s president:
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Just before 5 o’clock the next morning, Leshchenko turned over in his bed and saw the ominous glow of breaking news on his phone. President Vladimir Putin had announced that Russia was launching its invasion of Ukraine.
Soon after, he heard a distant rumble. He went outside and watched cars flow from garages, clotting the city’s arteries. His neighbors were fleeing westward to safer ground—but he had orders to go elsewhere.
When Zelensky had taken office, he’d appointed Leshchenko to the Supervisory Board of the Ukrzaliznytsia, the national railway. Some members of the intelligentsia dismissed the job as a second-rate sop to a loyalist. But the prospect of working with the gritty stuff of locomotives fired Leshchenko’s imagination. He would help oversee one of Europe’s largest firms, with 230,000 workers, an organization that needed hardheaded reform. “I liked that it was concrete,” he told me this summer, over dinner at the restaurant in my hotel.
I had returned to Kyiv, once again seeking Leshchenko’s insight. I wanted to see the war through his eyes, to understand how the country had survived the Russian onslaught—and whether the war had changed the trajectory of Ukraine’s still nascent democracy. He has a nose for a story and a knack for inserting himself into pivotal events. He’s also a raconteur, and good company.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Leshchenko told me, Ukrzaliznytsia had sent specific instructions: At the first sign of war, he was to report to the organization’s headquarters, in central Kyiv. The building was a short subway ride from his apartment. Rushing out the door, he instinctively stuffed his backpack with his official documents, a wad of cash, his laptop, and underwear.
The railway management had good reason to worry that the Russians would seek its destruction. Taking out the leadership of the railway would debilitate the nation’s primary transportation network and, therefore, the entire country.
When Leshchenko arrived at headquarters, a functionary told him that the plans were already scrambled. He needed to head to a satellite office nearby, a building unlikely to make the Russian list of targets. With explosions in the distance, the CEO of the railway, Alexander Kamyshin, delivered a locker-room talk to the small group of executives who had assembled at the new rendezvous point. “We’re going to keep the railways operating at any cost,” he said.
To hedge its bets, the group split in two and fled in different directions. One team made its way to Lviv, where it would set up an improvised headquarters.
Leshchenko joined the second group, which included Kamyshin. They piled onto a specially designed railcar, called an automotrice. From a distance, it looked like a souped-up terminal shuttle from an American airport: With engineer’s perches at both ends, it could quickly change directions. Kamyshin announced that the car would ride the rails of central Ukraine in a deliberately desultory pattern, making it a slippery target.
The group in the automotrice intended to run the system while on the move, but that proved impossible. In the early hours of the war, mobile phones worked erratically, if at all. To stay in touch with station managers at remote outposts, they relied on a communication system that might have been cutting edge in the Soviet era: Every hour or so, the car would pull into a station. Leshchenko and the executives would head into a room called the studio, equipped with a microphone. A switchboard operator would use a system of cables to patch them through to far-flung stations.
What Leshchenko heard in these conversations gobsmacked him. At 8 a.m., a station manager on the border with Crimea reported that he had witnessed a train carrying dozens of tanks roll into Ukraine. Another manager relayed that he’d just seen Russian tanks a two-hour car ride from Kyiv. “We had people at even tiny stations,” Leshchenko told me. “We heard what nobody had known before.”
Conventional wisdom held that if Russia attacked, it would merely escalate the long-standing conflict in the country’s east. But Leshchenko could see, from the strangely panoramic vantage of the automotrice, that the Russians were pouring into the country from every conceivable angle. “We understood the total invasion,” he said.
Leshchenko became the railway’s de facto intelligence liaison. As a former journalist, he could take accurate notes of phone calls, and typed up the accounts of the disparate station managers on his MacBook. Each time he collected fresh information about Russian movements, he forwarded his notes to Serhii Shaptala, the army’s chief of staff.
The group on the automotrice felt torn between conflicting imperatives. Conductors were scrambling to facilitate a massive evacuation of panicked women and children from besieged cities. Two thousand passengers, sometimes more, were crammed into trains designed to carry 600. But the rails were also being exploited by the invading Russians, allowing them to quickly import heavy weaponry deep into the country.
To stall the onslaught, the Ukrainian army began deliberately detonating tracks that might carry Russian tanks into the heartland. Explosives ripped bridges from their moorings. These were significant alterations to the system that needed to be relayed down the hierarchy to station managers and engineers. From the mobile headquarters, the railway management remade the network’s map so that evacuations could continue, despite all the self-inflicted damage.
As the automotrice caromed from station to station and the hours wore on, Leshchenko began to regret that he’d forgotten to pack his toothbrush. He managed to briefly cadge a bed in the car’s small bunk room, where the executives took turns napping.
At the end of the war’s second day, just after midnight, the automotrice pulled into a small town. To avoid advertising targets to the Russians, everything remained shrouded in the thickest darkness. “I’m in a World War II movie,” Leshchenko thought. The automotrice slowed to a halt alongside another railcar. Standing on the tracks, he saw Ukraine’s infrastructure minister.
Thank you for your good work, the minister told the assembled officials. But it’s time to consolidate operations in Lviv immediately.
Before the invasion, the railroad was hardly beloved. It was notorious for its corruption and unreliability. But in those first days of war, when nearly every institution collapsed, the trains miraculously kept running. By June, Ukrzaliznytsia had evacuated more than 3.8 million refugees, including 1 million children. Every day, the company hauled an estimated 300,000 tons of cargo, compensating for the Russian blockade of Black Sea ports and a fuel shortage that incapacitated trucking.
That night, as management followed the infrastructure minister’s orders and began the trip to Lviv, Leshchenko’s mind began to wander. He felt that the railway had survived its greatest moment of crisis. His nose for the story told him that history was going to be made elsewhere.
On the eve of Zelensky’s inauguration, in 2019, Leshchenko believed he was going to join the president’s inner circle. During the campaign, he had arranged briefings for the candidate, lining up experts to teach him the intricacies of foreign policy and the necessity of battling corruption. After the election, Leshchenko discovered that Zelensky would answer his texts if he sent them in the early morning, as the president-elect prepared his kids for school. He began sending Zelensky advice, without having to filter it through a gatekeeper.
Then, just as he stood poised to assume a position of power, his investigations of Paul Manafort returned to damage him. In May 2019, Rudy Giuliani appeared on Fox News and warned that Zelensky was “surrounded by literally enemies of the president.” Giuliani assured viewers that he wasn’t insinuating a vague conspiracy; he was pointing the finger at a specific adviser. “I’ll give you his name.” He paused. “A gentleman by the name of Leshchenko.”
Giuliani’s denunciation was transparently part of his ploy to pressure Zelensky into launching an investigation into the Ukrainian business dealings of Joe Biden’s son Hunter. But Leshchenko knew it would ruin his chance for a job. Even if Zelensky largely resisted Giuliani’s importuning, he wasn’t going to risk angering the leader of Ukraine’s most powerful ally. “I’m not stupid,” Leshchenko said. “If you’re considered a troublemaker by an American president, it’s best not to be involved.”
Now, with Ukraine at war—and Trump out of office—the landscape shifted. Three days before the invasion, Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, had unexpectedly called Leshchenko to ask him to join the government’s Disinformation Prevention Center, an agency focused on combatting Russian propaganda.
It was an aborted conversation. They made vague plans to meet and discuss the details further. Having arrived in Lviv after his time on the automotrice, Leshchenko called to press the issue. “Do you still need me?”
“Take the next train back to Kyiv,” Yermak told him.
At 7 o’clock the following morning, Leshchenko arrived in Kyiv and called Yermak again.
“I’m here,” he told him.
“A car will pick you up at your apartment in an hour.”
Leshchenko stuffed his toothbrush in his bag and replenished his cache of T-shirts.
The streets of Kyiv were devoid of civilian life, but the trip to the presidential bunker required wending through a maze of checkpoints. Anxious guards scrutinized documents passed to them through the car’s window. Days earlier, Russian agents, some of whom had supposedly laid low in Kyiv for months, had been activated. They’d descended on the center of power to capture, or perhaps eliminate, the leadership of Ukraine. The plots had been foiled, but anxiety remained.
When Leshchenko finally arrived at the presidential bunker, he found slumbering soldiers strewn across the floors. Presidential aides sidestepped them as they went about their jobs. Leshchenko, however, was shown to his own room—an office that doubled as a dorm. He could unfold a cot and place his pair of white hotel slippers next to it.
Although Leshchenko had a room, he didn’t have a clear set of responsibilities, at least not at first. Needing to improvise his job into existence, he set about making himself useful. Unlike most members of the president’s inner circle, he spoke English well and without self-consciousness. From his days at the center of the Manafort scandal, foreign journalists had his number stored in their contacts. If he needed to play the role of gofer—helping arrange Zelensky’s interviews—he didn’t mind.
Despite all the tension of the bunker, its ethos felt familiar to him. When Leshchenko had first met Zelensky, he’d noticed that he shared his office with a pair of brothers, Boris and Serhiy Shefir. They were longtime producers in Zelensky’s entertainment empire, like-minded comedic talents. Zelensky fed off their jokes. He liked to stay close to the creative process. Even after he left entertainment for politics, his inner circle still had the informality and bonhomie of a writers’ room.
Somehow, the windowless bunker retained the same camaraderie. Most public figures would scoff at living with their closest aides, but it suited Zelensky. “We lived like a family,” Leshchenko told me. As he observed the president at close distance, it struck him: “He doesn’t like to be alone.” Zelensky’s extroversion propelled him to talk through every decision. “He liked to be able to see the reaction to his ideas.” The close company of his advisers allowed him to socialize the burden of running a nation at war.
When Leshchenko went to the bunker’s canteen or stuck his head into a colleague’s office, he would often bump into the president, who would quiz him: “What’s the news?” When an adviser expressed his horror at a video of wartime destruction—or discovered a hilarious meme—Zelensky would crowd around a laptop along with everyone else.
Zelensky let his generals manage the war, which felt far beyond his own capacities. But there was another war, the one for hearts and minds, which the president made his own. Leshchenko became one of his foot soldiers.
Zelensky and Yermak (himself a film producer) fervently believed in the ability of celebrities to influence opinion and had impeccable instincts for casting. Part of Leshchenko’s job was to book talent that could bring international attention to Ukraine’s plight. Through his partnership with Brian Keith Etheridge, Leshchenko arranged for Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher to join a videoconference with Zelensky, though he failed in his campaign to get the president a virtual cameo at the Academy Awards. Zelensky settled for the Grammys.
Since he was a young reporter, Leshchenko had stayed in touch with Michael McFaul. A longtime Russia expert and ambassador to Moscow under Barack Obama, McFaul was a fiery presence on Twitter and television, passionately advocating for the Ukrainian cause. When McFaul was going to address more than 200 Democratic members of Congress at a retreat in Philadelphia on March 10, he set up time to talk with Leshchenko and Yermak.
Ninety minutes before he was scheduled to speak, McFaul dialed the men on Skype and was jolted by the presence of another face on the screen. There was Volodymyr Zelensky, smiling at him. “Mike, you look great over there,” the Ukrainian president told him. Zelensky needed House Democrats to fund arms packages for Ukraine and to pass more sanctions on Russia—and he needed McFaul to press that case.
“Did he rile me up? Absolutely. Was it orchestrated? Absolutely,” McFaul told me. Even in the moment, he marveled at the expert manipulation.
In our conversations, Leshchenko referred to the bunker by a euphemism, “The Special Place.” The term betrayed his emotional attachment to the months he spent living there. He felt connected to the patriotic mission, but he also admitted that the experience had fulfilled a yearning to “touch history with my fingertips.” What made the Special Place so special was that he was running his hand along a moment that would live in national legend.
On March 19, Leshchenko left the Special Place for a few hours to grab a drink at a bar with the handful of his friends who’d remained in Kyiv. In his social circle, these friends were outliers. They hadn’t decamped to Poland, but had chosen to endure the empty grocery shelves and the blaring air-raid sirens.
A DJ spun vinyl while hipsters in beanies downed shots in the name of victory; in the kitchen, volunteers were cooking meals for the Territorial Defense Forces. A devotee of underground techno clubs, Leshchenko felt transported back to his old haunts. Under different circumstances, the gathering would have spilled into the morning hours. But the government had imposed an 8 o’clock curfew, which meant the group needed to disperse at 7 so that nobody would be marooned on the streets on the wrong side of the deadline.
As the gathering wrapped up, Leshchenko felt overcome by the moment, or perhaps it was the pair of Aperol spritzes he’d imbibed. His friend Anton Ptushkin, a YouTuber with a popular channel devoted to his international travels, had brought a camera. He grabbed Leshchenko and asked him, “What’s your attitude towards parties during the war?” In his mushy, slightly buzzed mood, Leshchenko exclaimed: “We have to come back to normality as much as possible; if we don’t come back to normality, people won’t come back to Kyiv. If they don’t come back to Kyiv, they won’t pay taxes; they won’t buy milk or bread in the store; the economy won’t come back to life. War is not for death; it’s for life.”
Two weeks later, Ptushkin posted the video, which had been shot at the very moment that Ukrainian troops were fighting a pitched battle in the suburbs of Kyiv. Leshchenko’s cameo was brief, his monologue edited down to a few seconds embedded in a 20-minute documentary about Kyiv in wartime. But the response to the snippet of Leshchenko was instant and hostile. “The elite of Kyiv hangs out in disco bunkers,” one tweet excoriated.
Back when Leshchenko was an ink-stained wretch, he enjoyed a reputation for adversarial zeal and superhuman integrity. When he entered politics, however, he found himself subject to the same scrutiny he had made a career of applying to those in power. Newspapers ran stories about his apartment, for which he’d paid about $300,000—far pricier than a former journalist’s salary could muster. (Leshchenko said he could afford it thanks to a loan from a former boss and the fact that his girlfriend was a renowned DJ playing lucrative gigs around the world.) Old enemies, and even erstwhile friends, skewered him.
When the video appeared, he thought, “I’m in the middle of another shitstorm.” He braced himself for a reprimand. But nobody in the bunker mentioned the controversy to him. It didn’t register in the midst of a battle for the survival of the nation.
Leshchenko understood why the video rankled; he even sympathized with his critics’ point of view. A return to normalcy might exact an intolerable price: “People could begin to feel distant from the war.” But he also stood by the sentiment that people under attack deserve to smile, to recover small pieces of the happiness that Russia had stolen from them.
Two days after the video appeared, Leshchenko and Oleksiy Arestovych, an actor turned frequent government spokesman, hopped in a car and began driving away from the city. Ukrainian troops had liberated the Kyiv suburbs, but few from the bunker had ventured beyond the city center. The two men wanted to survey the wreckage of the Russian occupation for themselves.
They drove silently through Bucha and Irpin, names that weren’t yet synonymous with the horrors that transpired in them. Arestovych would steer the car onto the sidewalk when burned-out Russian equipment barricaded the streets. Leshchenko had heard secondhand accounts of battle, but it was nothing like seeing the totality of the wreckage with his own eyes, the detritus of kitchens and laundry rooms strewn across the horizon of rubble, the stains of blood on the pavement, the lifeless eyes of the survivors.
When they returned to the bunker, they sought out Zelensky. “You really need to see this yourself,” Leshchenko told him. The president agreed.
Dislodging the Russians from the environs of the city was one of the great upsets in modern military history—a victory that most analysts in the West hadn’t dared to imagine. But the revelation of atrocities in the liberated villages muffled any celebratory impulse in the bunker.
Although the Ukrainian public largely believed that victory was within grasp, Leshchenko began to understand that the war likely would end not in months, but in years. If the Russians were going to treat the Ukrainians they conquered as vermin, then the occupation of Ukrainian territory was an intolerable concession. And if there weren’t any tolerable concessions to offer, were there any plausible grounds for a negotiated peace?
Still, it slowly dawned on Leshchenko and his colleagues that the bunker was no longer a necessity, at least for the time being. They could return home. On April 28, Leshchenko slept in his apartment for the first time in seven weeks.
On a cloudy June afternoon, I accompanied Leshchenko to the Office of the Presidential Administration, where Zelensky works. Residential apartments peer into the back of the hilltop complex. “See the clotheslines,” he said. Amused by the incongruous detail, he pointed at a woman’s leopard-print housecoat drying in the wind.
Even though the Russians had largely stopped attacking Kyiv, sandbags remained piled in front of the building’s windows. A hallway was illuminated only by a cheap desk lamp sitting on the floor. Walking through the building felt like a stumbling trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Leshchenko led me into the press-briefing room, which had theater seats and a podium that Zelensky frequented. He wore his signature T-shirt, which announced I’m Ukrainian. Twice a week, Leshchenko appears in the room to record a short video debunking the latest in Russian agitprop. Today, he wanted to poke holes in an interview that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had given a day earlier—“full of outright lies and cheap manipulation.” Among his baseless provocations, Lavrov had accused Ukrainian soldiers of using drugs that prevented them from experiencing pain and fear.
When he’s making conversation, Leshchenko tends to take long pauses to gather his thoughts, carefully calibrating his answers to questions. Over meals, he will look down and slurp his soup as he composes his sentences. At the podium, he inhabits a fast-talking persona whose every sentence sounds punctuated by an exclamation mark. He takes pride in not needing a script in his briefings, and razzed a colleague for reading from a teleprompter.
“When I speak, I speak from the heart,” he teased.
Rhetorically shredding the Kremlin’s ludicrous claims required him to lean on his old reporting skills, to muster facts. But he admitted that the task didn’t demand much of his intellectual capital—Russian propaganda tends to beggar belief. His job wasn’t so much to persuade as it was to remind the world how much the Russians hated Ukrainians. He wanted to relentlessly highlight the extravagant desperation of Russian lies. His counterpropaganda was its own form of propaganda.
His briefings were a small part of how the Zelensky administration had overcome a historic impediment to Ukrainian democracy. When the country emerged from the Soviet Union, its people harbored a radical distrust of the state. The government was “them”—a distant entity that never represented or reflected the public interest. Not incorrectly, it was viewed as a mechanism oligarchs used for plunder. But in wartime, with the benefit of an external enemy, the government became “us”—a body worthy of trust, more organically connected to its citizenry. When its official mouthpieces, including Leshchenko, conveyed a message, the public tended to heed it—more so, at least, than it would have in the past.
When we left the briefing room, Leshchenko took me for a bowl of borscht in the canteen. On our way, he suggested we stop in the building’s formal entrance. “Maybe we should take a selfie,” he said. We were standing near a colonnade, where the gaps between the columns were filled with rows of sandbags, piled 10 feet high. “This is a very famous place.” It was where Zelensky liked to greet visiting foreign leaders, a setting that never failed to impress, even if it was obviously an overwrought display that served no clear military purpose. A month later, Zelensky’s wife, Olena, would pose in the same place for an Annie Leibovitz spread in Vogue.
As we left the foyer, we ran into a woman who had lived with Leshchenko in the bunker. While I stood to the side, they shared a reverie. “Whenever I see someone from there, it feels like a significant moment,” she told him.
For Leshchenko, the Special Place had become an object of longing, a time that had passed. He may very well spend the rest of his life seeking to replicate it.
In early summer, before the intolerable heat arrived, Kyiv was swept with an energy that surprised its residents. The trains from Poland were packed with returning refugees. Despite the curfew, young people went to the city’s dance clubs. Drivers on mopeds delivered food ordered on mobile apps.
On a Saturday night, Leshchenko and Anton Ptushkin took me to a chic Thai restaurant overflowing with patrons, some of whom ate on blankets, spilling down a grassy lawn in front of the establishment.
As a native of Kyiv, Leshchenko likes to wax lyrical about the “city of scars,” a metropolis that has survived centuries of successive traumas. The Russian invasion, he predicted, would eventually take its place in this lineage of suffering. This history of resilience made him strangely optimistic. There was even a chance that the war might leave the city with a greater self-confidence, a more expansive sense of its own possibilities. Squinting one’s eyes, it was possible to see that future on the lawn of the Thai restaurant.
Leshchenko could easily inhabit the normalcy he’d extolled in his now-notorious monologue, but it also left him feeling inadequate, a bit empty. It was a sentiment I heard echoed by other men leading civilian lives in Kyiv. Some, like Leshchenko and Ptushkin, compensate by becoming amateur arms dealers. They raise money from abroad or dip into savings to procure trucks and drones, importing them from Poland and then hauling them to soldiers in the thick of action. It’s at least as much a salve to the anxieties of the benefactors as it is a boost on the battlefield.
Two nights before our Thai dinner, Leshchenko and Ptushkin had driven east to deliver a caravan of Toyota trucks. It was a 14-hour ride into the Donbas, first along broad highways, then along constricted country roads.
The caravan made its way to a village called Mykolaivka, about seven kilometers from the front line. They arrived at a small hotel late at night. Like every building in town, the hotel kept its lights off—a necessary defensive tactic, but hardly fail-safe.
Dining in the dark, Leshchenko heard the screech of a Russian shell falling in the hotel’s direction. Before Ptushkin had time to react, he saw Leshchenko lying facedown. “He was the only one on the floor,” he remembered, with a touch of mockery. The woman running the hotel advised the group to crowd into a room in the middle of the building, protected by a pair of concrete walls.
Heading to bed at that point didn’t make any sense. Leshchenko felt as if he had spent the evening pounding espresso. At one in the morning, another shell arced toward the hotel. When it landed about 200 meters away, the walls of the structure wobbled. “He was really scared,” Ptushkin remembers.
But Leshchenko also admitted that he felt alive—pulsing with the same sense of vitality that he’d felt in the Special Place. “I’ve become an adrenaline junkie,” Leshchenko told me. “But I think it’s very human.”
That craving kept propelling him back toward the front. As he described the feeling, he showed me a short clip that a friend had taken of him, running through thick brush, wearing body armor and sunglasses, as artillery exploded around him. He fetishized these moments and tried to hang on to them. In his apartment, he keeps shards of Russian bombs and missiles that he has collected on the battlefield, his own personal museum of the war.
When Leshchenko returned to Kyiv, he went to a party. Arriving a bit late, he saw Ptushkin surrounded by a crowd of women, recounting their trip with great relish. “It used to be cool to go to the Maldives or the Seychelles,” Leshchenko joked. “Now it’s cool to say, ‘I was in the Donbas.’ ” The joke betrayed an anxiety that I heard Leshchenko express on multiple occasions. The war, which Kyiv experienced so intimately in the late winter, now risked becoming a distant piece of exotica. He worried that the public would lose touch with the conflict, and then lose interest. It wasn’t hard to imagine that he was also worrying about himself, that history, which he touched at every turn, might slip beyond his reach.
This article appears in the October 2022 print edition with the headline “The Operator.”